And then there were four.
If this NHL postseason has taught us anything, it should be that every season is sacred and the outcomes from the previous few seasons hold no bearing when it comes to the season at hand. Especially when we’re discussing teams littered with future Hall of Famers. It’s an important lesson as we all try to determine which teams are on the rise, which are on the fall or which are going to stay the same this summer.
Pittsburgh and San Jose are two teams that have had millions of words written about how they wouldn’t win it after spectacular postseason flame outs over the past decade. Both sets of cores are already long in the tooth and not getting any younger or cheaper.
(Of course, the narrative is already being flipped in San Jose and Doug Wilson is receiving heaping praise for showing the patience to keep the core together. Nevermind that he would’ve been more than happy to launch Joe Thornton or Patrick Marleau in training camp if they agreed to waive their no-trade clauses.)
St. Louis is similar, minus the multiple Hall of Famers on their roster.
These teams were also opportunistic in their timing as several of the elite teams from the past (Chicago, LA, New York, Anaheim come to mind) were either worn out by long playoff runs from the past five seasons, mismanaged the bottom of the roster or done in by bad luck.
With all that being said, you can just go ahead and put Nashville with the Minnesota Wild as guardians of the gates of NHL Hell for the foreseeable future. The Predators, for some reason, are still a cute story in some circles despite never amounting to anything of substance.
“Look at this mid-major trying the best they can! I think they can really do it!” you may hear.
Or “Don’t sleep on Nashville. Ryan Johansen had another excellent season slaying bums.”
The sad fact for Nashville remains, though. They will always run into a team stronger than them so long as the current cores in the West remain. Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne are well beyond the wrong side of 30 and constitute more than $14 million of their salary cap for the next four years with large increases due to Phillip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen in that time frame.
Speaking of…Ryan Johansen for Seth Jones, even if Jones withers away in Columbus, will be the trade that cements the Predators place in NHL Hell. With Jones, the Predators had a defensive rotation that no other team could match. Weber and Josi getting clocked by a team’s top line? Fine, just match up Jones with them. And vice versa. Meanwhile, a third pairing of Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm awaits to dominate your bottom six.
Instead, Hockey Genius David Poile chose to throw that away for Good Canadian Boy Ryan Johansen, who if his name was Ryan Johvetskov would face the fire of a thousand mouthbreathers for his propensity to disappear the moment he has an unfavorable matchup. Johansen was a ghost in both rounds when it mattered most. For example, in Game 4 during the Predators marathon overtime win, Johansen was occasionally skipped in the line rotation.
But I’m sure he’ll be reasonable in his next contract negotiations.
Not good, gang.
Finally, that takes to the Conference Finals.
Pittsburgh vs. Tampa – An excellent discussion taking part in corners of the Committed Indian offices…Would Tampa winning the Cup with essentially the same roster minus Stamkos further cement the legacy of ’14-15 Chicago Blackhawks as one of the most improbable Cup runs in our time? I say yes, if only because they were running a decaying Kimmo Timonen and David Rundblad as a third pairing and I don’t think we’ll ever see a Cup team with that skewed of a defensive rotation.
The Tampa forward lines are clearly loaded and Viktor Hedman is a monster in much the same way Seth Jones will some day be (Thank Christ, he’s out of the West). Yes, their road to this point wasn’t exactly difficult but that shouldn’t take away how quickly and dismissively they swatted away both the Wings and Islanders.
On the other side, you have the Penguins coming off a second round match where they out-possessed and out-shot yet still won 4 out of 6 games against the best team in the league. HOCKEY.
The Penguins are fun to watch mostly because of their speed and skating ability. They also have two scoring lines of which the Lightning have yet to face. Of course as we’ve seen, Hedman is also good enough to neutralize a team’s top two lines. So that could be a big problem for Pittsburgh.
You can also be sure that the Legend of Trevor Daley will continue to grow so long as he continues to be bailed out by luck or his goaltender and racks up an assist here or there.
In the end, I don’t think the Penguins have enough to overcome the fact that they don’t have a Viktor Hedman on their roster and I trust Ben Bishop far more than Matt Murray.
St. Louis vs. San Jose – Here’s a Western Conference final that no one asked for but yet may offer a pleasant surprise. Both teams play a similar style and both have a lot of postseason demons left to exorcise. One of these teams will finally win a Clarence Campbell trophy so long as California doesn’t slip off into the Pacific before this series ends. This has a strong chance of being the longer of the two conference finals.
The Blues, somehow, almost coughed it up to the inferior Stars despite having a much stronger defense and goaltending. Ken Hitchcock continues to love overplaying Troy Brouwer and David Backes (which can only mean good things for the future as both are set to become free agents and the Blues will almost certainly overpay to keep both).
The Sharks, somehow, almost coughed it up to the inferior Predators despite having a clearly deeper roster. To be fair, if Pavelski’s goal counted in Game 4, the series could have ended a lot sooner.
The Sharks power play is a fireworks show on acid. First off, their entries are exquisite. Then once they’re set, the puck moves so quickly around the ice and there is minimum standing. Guys follow their pass, move to open passing lanes, isolate the penalty killers where they are the weakest and then BAM! The puck is flying at your goalie’s skull.
They’ll face their stiffest test in the Blues but it’s not like the Kings or Predators don’t know what the hell they’re doing when down a man.
San Jose also has stronger forward depth than in recent years. Matt Nieto is Mediterranean Andrew Shaw with a jersey number to match (EIGHTY THREE). Thomas Hertl is playing with Pavelski and Thornton and will most assuredly get paid handsomely for it this summer. Joonas Donksoi and Chris Tierney are two types of players that would have fit in perfectly on the mid 90’s Buffalo Sabres. And all of them are under 25 years.
I like the Sharks in this matchup but I don’t trust them. And I certainly wouldn’t trust St. Louis either if I felt stronger about them. What a weird conference final we may never see again.
Both of these series should really be something as the desperation for all four teams should be astronomical. They all have to know this could be their last and best chance at winning. In fact, I tried thinking about which team may never get as close as they are now but there’s a strong case to be made for all four.
Truly amazing. See you in the Final.